Practice Filters

I was talking with my FLOW group about our upcoming recital. Most of my participants have their pieces in pretty good shape, with a month to go. This is fantastic! But there’s a difference between having your piece in pretty good shape and being performance-ready.

We talked about play-throughs, and how running the piece multiple times is critical to work out both your physical endurance and the emotional and mental arc of the piece. The more your performance framework is in place, the more confident you can be delivering it even in higher-stress situations.

But the question then arose – what do we do for this last month BESIDES just playing through the material? How do we keep it fresh, how do we keep improving something that is already OK? There aren’t a lot more NOTES or TECHNICAL PROBLEMS to solve, but of course it could always be better.

To this I offered the idea of practice filters. If you come to your piece with a different focus each day, with a different attentional filter, you can discover something new about it, and every new filter will being something new to your interpretation. This can keep you from going on autopilot and just typing through your piece, it can keep you engaged and enjoying and learning right up to the last minute.

Playthroughs are a part of this, but not by any means the only part. Consider bringing an intention to your practice session like:

Today I want to really consider the DYNAMICS. I want to look at the whole of the piece and see where I am softest and where I am loudest. I want to think about what MF means compared to P in the sonic world of this piece. I want to explore whether I am or should be using the full range of my dynamics, or a subset of them. I want to titrate my crescendos and diminuendos with intention.

Today I want to engage with the ARTICULATION – on a deeper level than merely tonguing versus slurring. How am I using my tongue to add clarity or character or emotion? How am I treating the accents in this piece? How SLURRILY am I slurring? What kind of articulation choices would be in service of this piece?

Today I want to pay attention to my physical body. Where do I notice tension? Can I release that? How long can I go in this piece before the tension creeps back in? For how long can I maintain effortlessness? Where does it not feel EASY?

Here’s a short and definitely incomplete list of filters I might use to focus my practice:

  • Tone and sound
  • Character – writing cues in to remind yourself of what you want to show in each phrase
  • Historical style
  • Tempo and pulse
  • Body language – use a mirror or make a video. What are you communicating?
  • Intonation – using a drone to explore intervals
  • Silence – how are you using your rests and the spaces before and after you play?
  • Vibrato – HOW are you using it expressively? Do you sometimes give up and vibrate meaninglessly just to be doing something? Do any notes or passages resist your vibrato?
  • Form and architecture – how can you make contrasting sections sound contrasting and how can you make similar sections progress throughout the piece?
  • Programmatic choices – is this piece based on a story, or is there a descriptive title you could research? I’ve looked up images of the flowers in Francaix’s Flower Clock, I’ve researched the story of Syrinx – and I’ve made up my own story for a piece that seems to be telling one.
  • Time signatures – if the piece is in mixed meter, consider WHY the choices were made. Try dancing the rhythm, off the oboe. If it’s in 4/4, what would happen if you felt it in cut time or in one to the bar?
  • Awesomeness. This is my favorite filter – where is the MOMENT in your piece that will make the audience light up and smile? That will make them lean in, that will make them feel like their ticket was worth it? Where is the moment in each movement? Where is the moment in each phrase?

What kinds of filters do you use as you are bringing a piece to performance?

What kinds of filters do you consider in your non-musical decisions and projects?

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